Cashew Nuts: The Hidden Cost of Production
Alongside the dramatic rise in health conscious and vegan diets, cashew nuts are fast becoming the world’s favourite nut. But does this rise in demand come at a greater cost? Read on to find more on the working conditions of cashew processors in India, the hidden costs of cashew processing and how we as consumers can make a difference.
Main Cashew Nut Suppliers
India is a key figure in the global cashew nut trade, a food product with a market valued at some 6.27 billion dollars.1 Alongside Vietnam, India is the largest grower, processor and supplier of cashew nuts to international markets. In fact, in 2016, India and Vietnam accounted for 73% of the world’s share, so next time you buy cashew nuts, check the packet - it’s likely they’re from India.2
Global Popularity of Cashew Nuts
Farming and processing cashews took off in India in the early twentieth century, making cashew nuts available to wealthy western consumers by the 1920s.3 Since then, cashew nut sales have skyrocketed - between 2017-2018, over 790,000 metric tons were eaten worldwide; a 32% increase compared to a decade ago. To put this into perspective, the world ate the weight of nearly 100,000 double decker buses of cashews that year. In fact, the nut has become so well established that it is now the third most consumed nut in the world, falling just behind almonds and walnuts.2
Cashew Nuts on the Rise
Being both highly nutritious and versatile, the cashew nut has found itself in steep demand and a particular favourite of the US and Germany – the world’s top importers.2 More recently, external forces at work have seen the cashew catapulted to the mainstage. With the rise of health conscious as well as vegan and dairy-free diets, the nut has become a central ingredient in foods like vegan cheese, nut milks, nut butters and energy bars. In fact, out of all nuts, cashew imports have increased the most recently. In 2017, the European import value of cashew nuts surpassed hazelnuts for the first time ever.4 The numbers speak for themselves - research commissioned by The Vegan Society found that the number of vegans in the UK has quadrupled between 2014 and 2019.5 A report by British superchain Sainsburys has even projected that by 2025, vegans and vegetarians will make up a quarter of the British population.6
The Cashew Nut Catch
While this shift to plant-based alternatives could be considered a win for dietary health, if you scratch beneath the surface, this boom in demand comes at a cost ofen paid by the cashew processors, which in India is a 90% female workforce. As demand rises, buyers – largely supermarkets looking to maximise profits, pressure Indian suppliers to lower costs, who, in the face of intensified market competition tend to oblige.7
Investigative research, including a detailed report by ActionAid, has revealed the incredibly low wages female processors often receive for their hard work.8 Paid by weight of cashews shelled rather than by hour, a kilo of shelled cashews can pay just 0.05€, while in some supermarkets the price of cashew nuts per kilo can be around 10€. Unfortunately, low wages are not the only concern. Cashew nut processing is extremely labour intensive and health-threatening work. To cut costs, factory owners often ignore basic health and safety, putting more workers at risk of permanent physical injury.
Cashew Nuts’ Complex Supply Chains
At the heart of this problem lies a complex supply chain, where people at every level – from the consumers to the buyers, importers, exporters and suppliers – are looking to make a profit. Unfortunately, this often results in negligible profit for those at the bottom of the chain – in this case, the processors. What's more, supermarket demand for low prices pushes importers to buy cashews from cheap, unregulated processing units, where adequate working conditions and fair pay are not secured.6
Then, What Will Make A Difference?
Don’t worry, this isn’t a call to urge you to boycott cashews altogether, especially since many workers depend on the industry as a crucial source of income. Rather than renouncing the nut, it’s important that as consumers we recognise the amount of work that has gone into cashew nut production and use our wielding position to encourage supermarkets to review their supply chains and ensure they only work with suppliers who are complying with basic working conditions. As Nazneen Kanji, author on the subject and independent researcher, explains; ‘the demand needs to come from consumers wanting to know about supply chains, how retailers are managing them and whether they are guaranteeing certain labour conditions’.
However, since the largely female workforce typically comes from impoverished, marginalised communities, they are often dependent on any available local work, which further reduces their bargaining strength when rallying for better pay and working conditions.9 For this reason, increased consumer advocacy needs to be coupled with change at a local scale. Community NGOs and workers unions must press the Indian government to enforce pro-working laws, adequate health and safety and fair wages. This two-pronged approach would make all the difference, as Kanji tells me; ‘NGOs and local organisations need to work with the government to promote the industry as an important source of employment for women and insist on basic labour and safety standards – this is what will really help’.
Do you feel inspired to ask your local supermarket about their product supply chains? Let us know in the comment section below!